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Article written by Caitlin Graham, Lancaster University LLB graduate.
A dissertation is essentially an extended piece of coursework. It involves researching about and writing 10,000 words on a legal topic of your choice.
This article aims to provide undergraduate law students who have chosen to study a dissertation with some useful tips and advice which they will hopefully find helpful in achieving a first in their dissertation.
Choose a topic which is topical and which you find interesting.
Since you will spend hours and hours researching your choice of topic, reading about it, and writing about it, it is crucial to base your dissertation on a subject which you personally find interesting.
If you think you would like to complete a dissertation but are unsure of what to write about, a good start is first, to narrow it down by choosing an area of law which you are most interested in. For example, as I particularly enjoyed learning about criminal law, I knew that I would like to choose a topic related to this area.
Once you have an idea of what area you would most like to write about, brainstorm what parts of it are the most contentious, the most relevant, and which you are most drawn to.
Then, take some time to find some primary and secondary sources on the topic you are looking at to ensure that there will be enough material out there for you when you do your proper in-depth research.
Start researching in the summer.
Speaking of research, it is very useful to at least start your research in the summer prior to your final year when you will be officially studying the dissertation module.
Whilst it is most likely that you will conduct further research whilst writing up your dissertation, completing a decent amount of research in the summer, by finding and reading academic articles, newspaper articles, blog pieces, case law, and by watching any relevant documentaries/films, means that you will save so much time in the long-run. Additionally, it will prepare you to be able to begin writing your dissertation sometime in the beginning of Michaelmas term which is beneficial because it will be easier to balance studying and revision for your other modules, thereby making your final year less stressful.
Stay proactive in communicating with your dissertation supervisor.
It is your responsibility to maintain regular contact with your dissertation supervisor, whether by email or in-person.
Personally, I only had a couple of in-person meetings with my dissertation supervisor and instead, kept in regular contact with her throughout the year via email whenever I had either made progress in a draft chapter, or, I had a general query, such as in relation to referencing or writing style. I chose to send my dissertation supervisor my most up-to-date draft every time I made some considerable progress, such as if I had completed a chapter, and she would then read it over and inform me of any pointers/feedback. I preferred this structure as it meant I knew that I was on the right track as I was writing and therefore, that I would not be wasting time.
Whilst this method worked for me, if you think that you may fall into the trap of not keeping on top of working on your dissertation unless someone is reminding you, a better option may be to set up weekly meetings with your dissertation supervisor and weekly targets.
Ensure your dissertation is easy to understand.
Do not presume your reader is a law professor/lecturer and knows anything about your topic. Aim to target your dissertation to someone who has no knowledge of the topic. Therefore, you will need to address any key legal terminology and provide clear definitions throughout.
One way to be confident that your dissertation is both easy to read and understand to all audiences is to ask a family member and/or friend to read your work.
Critical analysis is key.
In order to obtain the higher grades, you will need to ensure you show strong critical analysis. Critical analysis means engaging with primary and secondary sources. In other words, show whether you agree or disagree with an academic’s viewpoint or the judgment of a case, and more importantly, why!
Furthermore, critical analysis means you as the writer addressing both sides of the argument but concluding which side you agree with and why.
It is critical that your conclusions are clear and consistent to achieve the higher grades. This means that your research and points throughout your piece of academic writing should reinforce your overall arguments.